Friday, January 15, 2010

The Original Coffeehouse Geeks

I am reading Brian Cowan's The Social Life of Coffee: The Emergence of the British Coffeehouse. He is interested in how the new and odd drink/drug, coffee, and the place for using it, the coffeehouse, became legitimate - indeed, became hugely popular - in Britain in the 1600s.

Cowan makes the very good point that the people who brought coffee to Britain in the first place were "virtuosi" who were curious about how all the world worked and fit together. They followed the plan of Francis Bacon, who thought God had providentially placed useful things all over the earth. It was our job, the virtuosi thought, to seek them out and understand them. The virtuosi were, in our terms, geeks. They wanted to systematically and empirically understand the world, and thus produced the scientific Royal Society. But they were also just curious about how people elsewhere lived. They tried the customs of others to see how they felt.

One of the most successful foreign customs that the virtuosi tried was roasting coffee beans and mixing them with boiling water. They found that drinking coffee led them to want to talk to other people about all manner of things while they all drank coffee together. The coffeehouse geeks had what Avrom Fleishman, writing about today's knowledge class, called "the taste for everything."

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Starbucks' Sad Slip

In Everything But the Coffee, Bryant Simon covers the arc of hipness for Starbucks. He dates this from 1992, when the company went public, to 2007, when they first lost money.

My course on coffee houses and public life spent yesterday observing various Starbucks locations. Small groups of students went to the busy downtown store, the inner suburb location with the best reputation as a community hangout, and two successful stores on the arterial roads of Lexington, Kentucky, our nearest city.

Surprisingly, the downtown location seemed to have the happiest interactions, mostly between the baristas and the customers. This is not the kind of place in which regulars would hang around, even if there are people who come in for coffee each day. I think the tone of the downtown store's interactions were better because they did not have a drive-through. The other locations, though, just did not generate much interaction among the patrons.

If you want a timetable of Starbucks' decline to ordinariness, these landmarks might do:
  • 2007 loses money for the first time
  • 2008 closes hundreds of poorly located stores [including one here in Danville, KY]
  • 2009 introduces instant coffee
  • 2010 creates "stealth Starbucks" stores that don't use the Starbucks name or logo.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Stealth Starbucks

I am teaching my course on coffee houses and public life this term. Today we will be fanning out to several Starbucks stores in Lexington to observe how well they do, in fact, function, as "third places." A third place is a place after home and work where we can socialize with others. In the ideal third place, strangers can become acquaintances and build up a body of friendly, though not consuming, social connections. Starbucks promotes itself as a third place.

Bryant Simon looked at how well Starbucks actually functions as a third place in Everything But the Coffee: Learning About America From Starbucks. He concludes that few Starbucks stores actually have that third place function. Simon has a blog, named after the book, that reports on new Starbucks phenomena. He notes that recently Starbucks itself has been pulling away from its own brand. Instead, they have been opening "stealth Starbucks," Starbucks owned and operated stores that mimic local independents. They name themselves after their location, and don't show the Starbucks logo.

Simon sees this move a part of a larger trend of resistance to chain stores, mass brands, and the general corporate homogenization of America.

I was reminded of Standard Oil's practice, in John D. Rockefeller's day, of buying out local oil companies but continuing to sell under the old, local brand. Most people did not know they were buying from the behemoth Standard, but thought they were still supporting the relatively local company. Standard was so successful in consuming all the competition that they became a monopoly in some places.

Starbucks is not likely to become a monopoly of third places. Indeed, I think the concept is an oxymoron. Part of the appeal of a third place is that it is local, it is the place where I am a regular. In theory, I suppose, Starbucks could become a monopoly supplier of coffee to local third places and independent coffee houses. So far, though, the independents take pride in resisting what my local coffee man calls "the Jolly Green Giant."

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Buying a House Together Before Marriage Gets Your Priorities Backwards

Many couples live together before marriage. Some do so for a long time, even have children. A few of them put off getting married because they have an insanely expensive idea of what a wedding should be.

The current housing market is producing the next illogical step in that progression: couples who buy a house together before they get married. They seem to be thinking that marriage is a maybe, but a house is something real.

I think they have that completely backwards.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Centrism and Supporting the President

Last week I assessed the first year of the Obama administration in five areas. My assessment is largely positive. These posts drew a variety of criticisms. I answered most of the specific criticisms in the comment area of each post. Today I want to address some general criticisms.

Some readers thought that being centrist meant that I should not support any party. I wrote:

Ideologically I am a centrist. I support and criticize based on position, not party. I usually find more to support on the Democratic side, and more to criticize on the Republican side. That is how I picked my party. I hope that is how anyone would pick his or her party.

carter said...

I agree. Most people find more to support on one side or the other then choose a party. Does that mean everyone is a centrist? Since you seem to agree 90 percnt or more of the time with the left why call youself a centrist? Name five other centrist sociologists. How do you define centist?

This give me a good opportunity to clarify the relationship between centrism and ideology, as well as centrism and party. I think the left and the right are small, while most people fall in the center. I do not think that anyone who is not a conservative is a liberal, nor vice-versa. However, there are essentially only two parties, which these three positions are obliged to choose among. Liberals who wish to be politically effective work with the Democratic Party; conservatives who wish to be politically effective work with the Republican Party. Centrists are obliged to choose. There are a large number of centrist Republicans, and an even larger number of centrist Democrats, including me.

One of the defining characteristics of centrists is that we believe there are many possible middle positions in every contested issue. Centrist political discussion consists of weighing the pros and cons of these middle options and choosing among them for good reasons - or at least reasons that can be explained to others. Since we must choose among positions for public reasons, centrists are less likely to simply follow a party line.

Which brings me to a second line of criticism I received.

pam said...

Mr. Gruntled it is painfully obvious you have drunk the Obama Kool-aid.

You are in danger of loosing your centrist credentials.

  • Delete
  • Blogger Gruntled said...
  • Pam: could you be more specific in your criticism?

  • Anonymous pam said...
  • It is becoming kind of humorous.Virtually Obama's every shortcoming is blamed on Bush. It makes Obama look weak and you look a little whiney. Will it ever stop? I can only hope. It is distracting.
    All four of you first year "centrist reports" Blame Bush in one way or another.

  • DeleteGruntled said...
  • Which shortcomings do you have in mind? I think I have been naming strengths and achievements of the Obama administration.

    President Obama has, indeed, had to spend more time fixing mistakes of the previous administration so far than on developing his positive program. I don't call these mistakes simply because they were made by the previous administration, but because I think they were mistakes. Do you think torture by our government was a good thing, or a mistake?

  • Anonymous pam said...
  • There you go make my point.

  • Centrism does not mean being wishy-washy. Centrism is just as firm a basis for judgment as any other position. When it comes to presidents, everyone - left, right, and center - is obliged to make some substantive judgments about whether the president's positions and actions are good or not. Making such a judgment does mean you lose your centrist credentials. Neither does it mean you are a partisan.

    Moreover, each president has to respond to the previous administration's actions. Sometimes they build on their predecessor's strengths, and sometimes they correct their predecessor's mistakes. Centrists, and everyone else, need to make a substantive judgment about whether the prior administration's actions were strengths or mistakes, and whether the current administration is building on the past for better or worse.

    Centrists are not partisans. We do not drink anyone's Kool-Aid.